Nancy Miller Elliott (1940-1998) was not only an outstanding photographer but also one who defined herself in relation to jazz as a chronicler of musicians from the swing, mainstream and classic jazz traditions. A native of Hell’s Kitchen and decades-long companion of trumpeter Buck Clayton, Elliott frequently trained her lens on musicians associated with Kansas City from which Basie emerged as well as many veterans of the band through the years, including Basie himself occasionally. The warmth of the photographs in this digital portfolio confirms trumpeter Randy Sandke’s comment shortly after her death of cancer at 57 that she lived a musician’s life more than most musicians he knew.
Elliott’s first professional involvement around the music was as a production assistant for Art Ford’s Jazz Party, where her first subjects were Billie Holiday and Lester Young. Elliott’s work later appeared in magazines, album covers (for which she sometimes wrote liner notes) as well
Nancy Miller Elliot photographs Count Basie, July 1982.
as for publicity
photographs. Her work was the centerpiece for the book Jazz Veterans (1996) with text by jazz critic and historian Chip Deffaa, who
noted that Clayton and Elliott encouraged each other’s creativity.
This extended to her helping to sustain Clayton’s writing,
arranging and leading the Buck Clayton Swing Band big band during
the last years of his life when he could no longer play; in turn,
he reveled in her photography. Elliott was a moving force behind
the trumpeter’s autobiography, Buck Clayton’s Jazz
World (1987). In addition to her main focus on jazz musicians,
Elliott frequently photographed New York’s poor and homeless
and exhibited some of this side of her work in SoHo galleries
and at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. She knew many of
the homeless on the city’s Lower East Side, volunteered
at a soup kitchen and delivered food and, in a testament to her
individual compassion, delivered food and clothing to people in
did not exclusively haunt the usual venues of jazz photographers.
Rather, she strived to capture the spirit and humanity of jazz
musicians away from the bandstand, often without their instruments,
at home, on the streets of New York or in settings of her choosing
that she thought would reveal their personalities. The result
is a collection, donated after her death to the Institute of Jazz
Studies, that looks like the scrapbook of her life with Buck Clayton
and the parade of jazz and jazz musicians that populated her world
up until she her health failed in the late 1990s.
This gallery, entitled Evening of the Basie-ites, is designed
both as a tribute to the Count and his men but the artistry of
Nancy Miller Elliott as well.